20 Apr 2017
72. LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
No skill has ever been learned without getting it wrong at some point. If we learn from our mistakes then failure is an essential precursor to success.
Words: Dominic Irvine, Epiphanies
Have you ever stopped to ponder what is really being said when a manufacturer of washing powder offers a ‘new and improved’ version of their product or when an app on your phone requires updating? Does that mean the previous versions they were selling us were substandard? Of course not, it’s just there are some areas of life where the process of continuous improvement is accepted as the norm.
As leaders and managers, and indeed as people, we require the same regular updating and upgrading, but the process by which we do much of that improvement is not so readily accepted - failure. Most of us fail our way to success through a series of trial and error experiences and despite the negative connotations our mistakes are a rich source of lessons that can fasttrack our development. If we want people to progress in business and sport we need to encourage them to work hard at improving, support them when they make mistakes and help them to learn from them.
Learning from mistakes is, however, a skill like any other and it requires certain core elements to get it right. Before you can do anything else, the first step towards learning from a mistake is to admit that you have made one, even if it’s only to yourself initially. This moves the focus away from assigning blame or deflecting responsibility and towards understanding why it happened and what you can do better next time.
You also need a clear objective, whether that is a specific goal or target or a long-held ambition. You need to know what it is you are trying to achieve because it’s hard to judge whether something is really a mistake if you have no parameters or intended outcomes.
You need a willingness to give it a go, because you can’t make mistakes if you don’t at least try. At some point you need to stop procrastinating and start doing. Improvement requires hard graft and the harder you work at getting better, the better you will get. But when you push yourself further the thing you are trying to master will inevitably get harder. Mistakes are therefore often a natural by-product of the effort you are putting in.
Insatiable curiosity is also a must if you’re to make the most of every mistake that you make. You have to want to know why you got the result you got and how you might be able to do better in the future. This means being willing to examine every part of what you did, however uncomfortable this might be. It means welcoming every piece of feedback you receive without getting hung up on it. The more feedback you get the better.
Try to surround yourself with people who understand and get what you are trying to achieve and who will act as a sounding board for your thinking. This can help you to maintain a sense of perspective and encourage and motivate you when things get tough. They should be the sort of people who listen with an open mind when you approach them with an idea and are helpfully critical. They can help you to avoid making mistakes and help you to learn from any that you do.
Remember also that how you act in the period after you have made a mistake can either dig you a bigger hole or help you start to climb out of it. Always show contrition and humility by apologising for your mistake and resisting the temptation to try to justify your actions. Show that you fully understand what you did and the impact of it and, crucially, what lessons you have learned to ensure the mistake won’t be repeated.
Finally you need the wisdom to know when to stop, because at some point the cost of achieving a goal exceeds the value. Things change and what is relevant today may not matter tomorrow, so knowing when to call it a day is perhaps the hardest skill of all.
It is important to remember that although mistakes have negative connotations they help us to do things better, and teach us to be more mentally resilient, responsible and accountable. We must never dwell too long on our mistakes, only on the lessons we learn from them.